An Algonquian-speaking people known as the Nacotchtank inhabited the area around the Anacostia River when the first Europeans arrived in the 17th century; however, Native American people had largely relocated from the area by the early 18th century. The Province of Maryland chartered a settlement at Georgetown on the north bank of the Potomac River in 1751. The busy port town would be included within the new federal territory established nearly 40 years later. The City of Alexandria, Virginia, founded in 1749, was also originally included within the District.
In his "Federalist No. 43", published January 23, 1788, James Madison argued that a new national capital would need to be distinct from the states in order to provide for its own maintenance and security. Five years earlier while meeting in Philadelphia, the Congress was besieged by a mob of angry soldiers, but the state government refused to use its militia to disperse the protesters. Known as the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, the situation emphasized the need for the federal government to not rely on any particular state for security.
Article One, Section Eight of the United States Constitution therefore grants Congress the authority to establish a "District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States". The Constitution does not, however, specify a location for the new capital. In what later became known as the Compromise of 1790, Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson came to an agreement that the federal government would assume war debt carried by the states, on the condition that the new national capital would be located in the Southern United States.
On July 16, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, which approved the creation of a new national capital to be located on the Potomac River, the exact area to be selected by President Washington. The initial shape of the federal district was a square measuring 10 miles (16 km) on each side, totaling 100 square miles (260 km2), formed from land donated by the states of Maryland and Virginia. During 1791–92, Andrew Ellicott and several assistants, including Benjamin Banneker, surveyed the borders of the new federal district and placed boundary stones at every mile point. Many of the stones are still standing.
A new "federal city" was then constructed on the north bank of the Potomac, to the east of the established settlement at Georgetown. On September 9, 1791, the federal city was named in honor of George Washington and the district itself was named Columbia, which was a poetic name for the United States in use at that time. Congress held its first session in Washington on November 17, 1800.
Shortly after arriving in the new capital, Congress passed the Organic Act of 1801, which officially organized the District of Columbia and placed the entire area, including the cities of Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria, under the exclusive control of the federal government. Further, the unincorporated territory within the District was organized into two counties: the County of Washington to the east of the Potomac and the County of Alexandria to the west. Following the passage of this Act, citizens located in the District were no longer considered residents of Maryland or Virginia, which therefore ended their representation in Congress.
The first half of 19th century. Retrocession
On August 24–25, 1814, in a raid known as the Burning of Washington, British forces invaded the capital during the War of 1812, following the sacking and burning of York (modern-day Toronto). The Capitol, Treasury, and White House were burned and gutted during the attack. Most government buildings were quickly repaired, but the Capitol, which was at the time largely under construction, was not completed in its current form until 1868.
In the 1830s, the District's southern county of Alexandria went into economic decline partly due to neglect by Congress. Alexandria had been a major market in the American slave trade and rumors circulated that abolitionists in Congress were attempting to end slavery in the District; such an action would have further depressed Alexandria's slavery-based economy. In 1840, Alexandria residents began to petition for the retrocession of the District's southern territory to Virginia. The state legislature voted in February 1846 to accept the return of Alexandria and on July 9, 1846, Congress agreed to return all the District's territory south of the Potomac River back to Virginia.
Confirming the fears of pro-slavery Alexandrians, the Compromise of 1850 outlawed the slave trade in the District, though not slavery itself. By 1860, approximately 80% of the city's 11,000 African American residents were free blacks. The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 led to notable growth in the District's population due to the expansion of the federal government and a large influx of freed slaves.
Civil War and the first local government
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act in 1862, which ended slavery in the District of Columbia and freed about 3,100 enslaved persons, nine months prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1868, Congress granted male African American residents of the District the right to vote in municipal elections. By 1870, the District's population had grown 75% from the previous census to nearly 132,000 residents.
Despite the city's growth, Washington still had dirt roads and lacked basic sanitation. The situation was so bad that some members of Congress suggested moving the capital further west, but President Ulysses S. Grant refused to consider such a proposal.
In response to the poor conditions in the capital, Congress passed the Organic Act of 1871, which revoked the individual charters of the cities of Washington and Georgetown and a created a new government for the District of Columbia. The act provided for an appointed governor, a locally elected assembly, and a board of public works charged with modernizing the city. By creating a consolidated government for the whole District, the Organic Act effectively formed present-day Washington, D.C., as a single municipality.
In 1873, President Grant appointed an influential member of the board of public works, Alexander Robey Shepherd, to the post of governor. Shepherd authorized large-scale municipal projects, which greatly modernized Washington. In doing so, however, the governor spent three times the money that had been budgeted for capital improvements, bankrupting the city. In 1874, Congress abolished the District's local government and instituted direct rule that would continue for nearly a century.
The District's population remained relatively stable until the Great Depression in the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation expanded the bureaucracy in Washington. World War II further increased government activity, adding to the number of federal employees in the capital; by 1950, the District's population reached its peak of 802,178 residents. The Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1961, granting the District three votes in the Electoral College for the election of President and Vice President, but still no voting representation in Congress.
After the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968, riots broke out in the District. The riots raged for three days until over 13,000 federal and national guard troops managed to quell the violence. Many stores and other buildings were burned; rebuilding was not complete until the late 1990s.